Another senior moment

Saturday, October 16, 2010; A12

NOT AGAIN. Is there no limit to politicians' pandering to seniors? Last year, as part of the stimulus package, President Obama and the Democrats made sure to take care of seniors with a $250 payment. Then, when the absence of inflation meant that there would be no cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits in 2010, the president proposed another $250 check. It didn't pass, but now that the Social Security trustees have said there is no need for a cost-of-living adjustment next year, the White House, with depressing predictability, proposes it again.

The payment made no sense last year. It makes less sense now. If benefits were calculated accurately, they would have actually been reduced, although the law, not surprisingly, permits only a one-way ratchet -- up. In 2009, Social Security recipients received their biggest cost-of-living increase in 25 years: 5.8 percent. Energy prices then dropped, but if Mr. Obama had his way, seniors would have received a COLA for inflation that didn't happen.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement Friday that neglected to mention the cost of this $250 handout ($12 billion) or how the White House proposes to pay (adding it to the debt and letting the grandkids pick up the tab). "Many seniors are struggling in the face of the economic downturn, having seen their savings fall," he said. No doubt some seniors are struggling. So are many other Americans who are more likely to be affected by the high unemployment rate and don't have guaranteed benefits.

The poverty rate for seniors fell last year, from 9.7 percent to 8.9 percent. In 2009, incomes rose for households headed by people 65 and older, while every other age group lost ground, according to Census Bureau figures reported recently in USA Today. Children are twice as likely as seniors to be living in poverty. Seniors are shielded, at least in part, from the impact of rising health-care costs; for all but the wealthiest, if Social Security benefits do not rise, neither can Medicare Part B premiums. And the new health-care law directs more money at seniors to fill the "doughnut hole" in the Medicare prescription drug bill. This year seniors caught in that coverage gap receive another -- you guessed it -- $250 check.

"This issue can be seen as a litmus test for fiscal responsibility," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in a statement urging lawmakers to resist the political temptation to dole out extra cash to seniors. On this, the president gets a failing grade.

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